Becoming a manager on a hybrid or remote team: 5 keys to success

May 11, 2022 by Carolyn Ruocco

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There’s a lot of talk about remote and hybrid work these days. For many, it’s all new. But for first-time managers, it’s extra-new. We’re navigating new workplace norms and schedules while also leading others to do the same (for the very first time).

At Nomadic, our blog, newsletter, Programs, Resources, and events all explore hybrid and remote work extensively. I’ve thought and written so much about remote teams over the years, I hardly realized I was having my own experiences and developing best practices while it was all happening.

Before the pandemic, I worked on the team at Nomadic that created content about managing remote and hybrid teams. And now at the end of it—please, please, be the end—I run the processes, schedules, and operations for that same team, with one colleague reporting directly to me. The whole time, I’ve worked from my home office (which turned into a nursery last year), an awkwardly placed desk in my hallway, my parents’ dining room table, and my bed. As of this writing, I haven’t met the team member who reports to me in real life, and haven’t gathered in-person with Nomadic since 2019.

I became a manager on a remote team that creates content about remote and hybrid work while working remotely. And, I’ve learned a lot. Here are my best tips for first-time managers on remote or hybrid teams.

  1. Prioritize people by putting the work first

Without the trappings of traditional office life—putting in face time, looking busy at your desk while secretly procrastinating, and buddying up at the coffee machine—all that’s left is work. Hybrid or remote, post-pandemic managers shouldn’t need to care about whether the team is dressed properly or gregarious enough with execs in the break room. Instead, all we need to care about is that the right work is getting done on time by the right people—and that those people are healthy, challenged, and mostly happy with what they’re doing.

That means much of the time, our team (made up largely of caregivers in different time zones) works at odd hours, sometimes starting the day in the late afternoon or squeezing in a 90-minute work session during the baby’s naptime. Instead of wondering where people are or what they’re working on, we use Monday.com to help manage projects and Slack to communicate asynchronously.

Being able to say “I trust you to get it done” is empowering, both for me and the person who reports to me. It’s also a relief for people who may get anxious about murky office politics or who have been burned in the past by bad managers. No matter what’s going on in the world or in their personal life, if they get their work done well and on time, they’re safe here.

  1. Schedule weekly 1:1s with your hybrid team (and attend them)

There are lots of reasons managers cancel 1:1 meetings. Maybe you just talked with your direct report on a team call, maybe you have a deadline you can’t miss, or maybe you’re just not up for a conversation. It doesn’t matter: you must meet one-on-one with each member of your team at least once a week. These meetings are your chance to align on priorities and discuss what’s working, what’s not, and how to improve. I find them useful not just for my relationship with my direct report, but also to align my own priorities and clue me in to what I need to be paying attention to.

Because most of our tasks are documented in Slack or Monday.com, there often isn’t a need to talk through the specifics of project management during these 1:1s. Instead, we frequently use some of our time to catch up as people, as caregivers, as colleagues. These casual conversations are crucial in remote and hybrid environments because sometimes, “putting the work first” without in-person interaction can feel monotonous, transactional, and lonely. I can combat those feelings with weekly check-in meetings with video turned on and babbling children in the background.

  1. Talk through processes, schedules, and communication

The way we do our work is just as important as the work itself. As a manager, the way I do things may have gotten me into the position I’m in now, but that doesn’t mean my way is the best or only way. My job now is to make sure everyone I work with (whether or not they report to me) feels confident in the way we collaborate.

When I moved into my new role, I overhauled a number of processes. It was fun for a process nerd like me, but also scary, because I was asking people who were not in the same room as me to change how they did their work. What if they hated it and thought I was doing my job poorly? What if they had a better idea than me and were afraid to share it? Because there isn’t a room to read during a remote meeting, I have to be extra conscientious and directly ask “what do you think about this plan? Does it work for you, or do you have any other suggestions?”

Above all, I try my best to stand behind my own ideas while being genuinely (and enthusiastically!) open to alternatives. One way to do this is to be disciplined about soliciting feedback. When managing hybrid and remote teams, conducting a survey about seemingly small things like set working hours, weekly call rituals, and Slack etiquette can go a long way. You might find your team spiraling into a debate about when to ping an entire channel, or whether a certain topic is worthy of a meeting or just a Slack message. With regular feedback, you’ll learn a lot about the team’s communication preferences, which will help you continue to earn their respect as you collaborate.

  1. Prepare for uncertainty

In remote and hybrid work, communication and process are incredibly important. But as a manager, preparing for work to get disrupted is even more crucial. There are sick kids, aging parents, struggling friends, home repairs, and plain old bad days that can disrupt our best-laid plans. There’s also a good chance the processes we’ve worked so hard to finesse will become irrelevant if company goals and objectives change.

Planning for the unknown is nearly impossible, but preparing yourself (your attitude, your reactions, your communications) for uncertainty can go a long way. Sometimes a 1:1 that I meant to use to talk through a new process turns into a planning session about how to get work done without reliable childcare. It’s helpful to be prepared for disruptions like this and to remember that staying open to change is simply part of the job.

As a general rule, I try very hard to end tough conversations with a plan for what to do next. When the team is stressed, having an immediately actionable to-do list can help. That to-do list might include “go for a walk, turn off your phone, and be with your family” or “finish updating this spreadsheet, then call me to talk about what we’re doing next.”

  1. Ask for support

When I first became a manager, I thought I was supposed to have all the answers. I had put forth my case for becoming a people manager, after all, and now was my chance to prove I could succeed. This siloed thinking didn’t help anyone. Instead of trying to make every single decision on my own, I discovered that I could be a much better manager by learning from other managers (like my own).

There may be skills you lack that are unique to hybrid or remote management, like digital communication etiquette or managing a hybrid schedule. Chances are, you’re not the only manager in your organization who wants to upskill. Find a group of your peers and learn from each other, then present your ideas to more senior leaders. Maybe there’s a tool you think would help you be a better manager, or maybe a group of people managers want to go through management training together.

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